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Claudine decides, as she sips an ice water from the balcony of the small chalet she’s staying at in a small southern town, that she needed France. Japan was good when she was trying to work steadily - everything in Japan moved forward, onward and upward, but France had a little more nuance. Sometimes things went forwards, sometimes sideways, and sometimes, they went a little backwards, and that was alright. It all came back around eventually in France. In Japan, if Claudine was not moving forward, she was feeling the pressure, the guilt, the anxiety. Here, she can take a breath, forget about the world for a moment. She feels good in France.

The chalet belongs to her aunt, who is currently in Paris on business, and so no one would bother her for at least another week. She has been enjoying her time in France so far - she doesn't usually visit so far south - aside from the guilt in her chest over leaving Maya behind.

I tried to explain, she tells herself, again and again to no avail. I needed some time away because while I was there… everything was just… festering over like a rotten sore.

Gagging a bit from the imagery, she sips the water, glancing at the plate of melon she’d brought out, but decides against eating any more when she sees a fly land on a slice. Even here, she realizes. Even here in France the rottenness can touch things.

She decides to take a walk around the area before the sun sets, enjoying her solitude. The summer is in full display now, with wildflowers blooming and crickets chirping loudly. She follows a path around a small pond just behind the house, long enough to keep her busy for about 30 minutes. She breaks a sweat, even at this late hour, from the effort, walking around the dirt path. She peers into the homes of her aunt’s neighbors but finds them mostly empty. She supposes it is mid-week, and she is in a rather remote region. Most of these homeowners probably use these chalets as winter retreats, weekend get-aways, and vacation homes - not somewhere to be on a normal Tuesday night in August. But still, it is nice to get away. France feels like home, even if she’s spent more of her life in Japan. France is comforting: she can re-orient herself here.

She approaches the house where she’s staying again, sliding the back patio door open to enter, surprised to hear a knocking on the front door.

Kicking off her shoes on the back patio, she slips through the ground floor in her socks, pausing at the front door to peer out the adjacent window. Standing on the front porch, cell phone to her ear, was Tendo Maya.

Her heart pounding, Claudine’s first instinct is to pretend she isn’t home. But she realizes Maya must have come here from Japan - flying, then taking a bus then a taxi, and taking time off of work, and she haltingly opens the door.

“She’s here,” Maya says, in uncertain French, into the cell phone. “Thank you for your help. …Of course. Goodnight.”

Maya tucks the phone in her pocket, turning her attention to Claudine. “May I come in?” she asks, gesturing to the small suitcase behind her.

“Who were you on the phone with?” Claudine asks, already knowing the answer, but needing to confirm.

“I called your mother. She was the one who gave me this address originally, and we were both concerned when you weren’t here. I… hadn’t realized you didn’t inform her you were in France.”

Claudine sighs, stepping back to allow Maya into the house. Her mother must have called her aunt, making a whole big scene of this. Meaning there was no sending Maya away now, after all. The sun was setting and they were miles from a hotel.

“It’s not a big deal,” she says, about leaving her mother in the dark, moving into the living room and pouring herself a glass of wine from the bottle she had left on the table. “I just made arrangements with my aunt and she wasn’t involved.”

It really isn’t a big deal, Claudine thinks, laying back on the couch. It was just that she came here to be alone, and if she told her mother she was visiting, then certainly she would want to spend time together. She is overwhelmed suddenly, with her roles: girlfriend, daughter, niece, actress, French, Japanese. She just wanted a week to get away, here in France. She just wanted to be alone. She supposes it doesn’t matter what she wanted now, with Maya here.

Maya folds her jacket, laying it over the back of her suitcase. Claudine wonders how she was even wearing the thing in the August heat.

“You’ve really been relaxing in here, huh?” Maya comments, gazing around at the ground floor. Claudine knows she sees the shoes kicked here and there, the luggage Claudine didn’t bother to haul up to the bedroom, or the candle half-melted into a dessert plate on the coffee table. It was all very contrary to the way they lived their life together in Japan - neat and tidy.

In fact, Claudine knew with complete certainty that their apartment in Japan was extremely clean at this very moment, kept up by Maya in her absence, but she had no idea if that was because Maya was a neat person, or because it was the way things had always been done.

“I guess,” she says, a little defensively. Who was Maya to come barging in on her retreat unannounced. Who was Maya to chase her across continents?

Maya walks into the living room now too, after removing her shoes. “What’s going on? You just left because you ‘needed a vacation’? We have a vacation planned together in another couple months. This isn’t like you…” She sits on an armchair facing the couch, her arms on her knees, leaning forward. Even after so many hours of travel, she is composed, she wants to sort things out neatly.

“I came here to be alone,” Claudine says, turning on her side and taking a large sip of the wine. It’s warm in her chest, filling the parts that burn as she shoots vitriol back at Maya, acid for acid.

“I don’t understand,” Maya says. Claudine can see the jet lag wearing on her, the wrinkles in her clothes and the bags under her eyes. She’s older than Claudine remembers, they both are. Claudine can sense it takes a little more than usual to control her frustration, and she can tell she’s testing Maya. And yet she can’t stop.

“I know you don’t. I tried talking to you. You don’t get it, remember? So I tried to just live with it, to just live around it, but I can’t. I needed some time apart, but-” she sits up, biting her lip. “You can’t even give me that!” She wonders why she’s like this, reverting to her Seisho self who would say harsh things instead of what she means. Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t know how to say what she means. Or even what she means.

Maya’s brow furrows, at last some realization shining through. Claudine thinks she looks teary-eyed, but knows better than to think Tendo Maya might cry. “Is this about the audition?” she asks.

Claudine downs the rest of the glass of wine, scooping up the bottle as she stands. Yes. No. Maybe. She takes a deep breath. “Listen, maybe we can talk about this tomorrow, after we’ve slept, but I can’t do this right now. I’ll show you where you can sleep.”

She knows it’s cruel, showing Maya a room apart from hers. But it feels right. She wonders who they are, not just apart, but alone. She went from her parents' home, to Seisho, to living in a dorm at her theater troupe, to moving in together with Maya. She has never been alone. She spent so much time with Maya, chasing after Maya, being the one who stood beside Maya, that now she feels that ’Claudine’ is waning. She wonders if she exists at all, apart from Maya. After all, all their friends are mutual, their careers are the same, they share everything.

She lays in the bed she’s been occupying for the past three nights, a little more drunk than she intended to get, and swallows down the rest of the bottle of wine anyways. She had told Maya she was leaving. She had told Maya she’d be back in a week or so. Maya didn’t have to make a scene - taking time from work abruptly, calling her mother, booking an international flight on a day’s notice. She sighs, imagining the cost. In her heart, she knows it’s because Maya cares, because she’s worrying Maya, because Maya wants to smooth any conflict between them.

She tosses the empty wine bottle gently to the plush carpet. But that’s the problem, she realizes. Maya always wants to smooth things over, to bring them back together. She wants to take their conflicts and ease them back into a neat shape, until they’re something that can be dealt with in a specific, practical way. Everything in its place, like the items in their apartment. But this time, she wonders if it’s that simple. Can this be solved with compromise and discussion and promises to be more understanding next time? What if two people just truly don’t see eye to eye? The thought bothers her, like a scab that she can’t let heal, that she keeps picking at.

She turns on her side, a little dizzy from the alcohol, trying to shut out the nagging voice in her head. ’You’re spending a lot of time blaming Maya,’ it says, ’When really you’re just upset you’ve lost yourself, no?

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

The next morning, Maya is already awake when Claudine comes downstairs. She looks like she was thinking about making coffee, but didn’t want to risk messing with the moca pot. Without a glance at Maya, Claudine puts some water on the kettle, packs espresso in the machine, and puts it, too, on the stovetop.

“You never make the coffee,” Maya says.

Only then does Claudine turn toward her. Maya is leaning on the counter, wearing a light robe, heather grey. She still looks tired, but more well rested than the night prior. This could be any day in their apartment, with Maya waking up after a late night at her latest show, were it not for the French countryside outside of their window, or yesterday’s leftover’s still sitting on plates beside the sink.

“Well I’ve been fending for myself for a couple days now. Besides, you weren’t having much luck.”

“I could have googled it,” Maya says, her tone as steady as always. It’s not cold, she’s never cold, but if Claudine didn’t know her as well as she did, it might have come off that way.

“Then I’ll leave it to you, next time, barista-shoujo,” Claudine quips. Already her patience is running thin. She had asked for one week away. One week to collect her thoughts before she faced Maya again, but here she was after just two and a half days, inexplicably facing off with Maya halfway across the world.

“No, I like it when you make me breakfast,” Maya says, sitting on one of the stools at the kitchen island.

“Oh, now I’m making you a full breakfast?” But still, she moves to the fridge, pulling out eggs and fruit, and across the counter, putting a couple slices of bread in the toaster. The motions are unconscious, nearly. Even if she doesn’t do it regularly, she’s known Maya long enough that she’s made breakfast her fair share of times. “I only bought enough food for myself. I don’t have enough for your big appetite.”

“Then I guess we’ll have to make a trip into town,” Maya says, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world. As if her inserting herself into Claudine’s vacation was a certainty in every timeline, not a split second decision. “By the way, the room was quite nice. My window had an excellent view of Cassiopeia.”

“Why aren’t you at work?” Claudine asks, turning towards Maya, ignoring the second statement. “I know the season isn’t over.”

“There’s only the final week left. My understudy has worked hard. I discussed it with the director, let her know there was an emergent issue I needed to attend to, and she allowed me the time off.”

Claudine cracked her neck, feeling tightness she hadn’t felt since she arrived. “You understand why I’m annoyed, right? I had things planned, time I wanted to spend on my own. There’s a reason I left Japan and took up residence in a nearly inaccessible chalet in the wilderness in France and didn’t even tell my mom. It wasn’t so you could arrive at the doorstep in less than three days.”

She pours the coffee, skips the sugar, adds the smallest splash of milk. She sees Maya gritting her teeth as she slides it across the counter, but she turns back to the breakfast preparations.

“What about my feelings then?” asks Maya. “What about me, who is left behind in Japan while you go soul searching?”

“Is that what you think I’m doing?” Claudine asks, whipping around once again. She holds herself back from spitting more venom, afraid to say something she’ll regret.

“I don’t know what you’re doing!” Maya says. “You just leave one day, saying ‘I’ve got some time before the next audition cycle, be home next week,’ what am I to think?”

The eggs have finished frying, and she sets them on the plates, moving to the toaster to butter the toast. She tries to think about things from Maya’s perspective, how she would feel if Maya suddenly informed her she was leaving the country for a week. Surprised, certainly, but not moved to chase after her. She would be dreading that something was wrong in their relationship. Which meant that Maya likely was too, but Maya always had an oblique way of saying things….

‘You’re to think’ that maybe I need some fun as a reward for those audition rejections,” Claudine says. That’s all the hint she’s giving for now, passing the breakfast plate to Maya. She sighs, sitting down with her own breakfast. She supposes Maya is here for the week, so whether they do activities together or apart, they are coming back to this house to sleep at night. It’s not like there’s a car here, or public transit, to take them far.

“What kind of fun do you have in mind?” asks Maya, sipping her coffee.

Claudine wonders if she’s picked up on the hint, or if it has zoomed over her head. Knowing Maya, she’s storing it away for later, but her calm expression betrays nothing.

“There’s a trailhead, just a half mile down the road, on the opposite side. I was just going to go for a hike today,” Claudine says. “If you want to stay here and read, or watch a movie, I under-”

“I’ll go,” Maya agrees, almost instantly. She reaches for Claudine’s hand, temporarily empty as she moves between her fork and her coffee, and gives it a light squeeze. It’s a more desperate grab than Claudine was expecting, as if Maya wanted to prove she really had found Claudine in France. She supposed they hadn’t actually touched since Maya arrived. Now, the touch sets her ablaze and she bites her lip to keep herself from moving to Maya, from kissing Maya, from holding herself close against Maya.

It has only been a few days since she’d been with Maya in Japan, but even then they had been on different schedules - Claudine taking jobs here and there during the day, and Maya finishing her evening shows late into the night. That, combined with the distance Claudine felt between them made the current touch all the more powerful. She pulls her hand back, afraid of the allure of Tendo Maya suddenly. Why had she come here, after all? Maya looks disappointed but says nothing.

“Finish your breakfast, then,” she snaps. “I want to get out before the sun gets too high.”

She sees the small stutter, the tremble of Maya’s hand as she moves it away. She recognizes it, a harkening back to their school days: is this touch all right? Do you want me to touch you there? She knows they’ve moved past that, years past that, and yet they’re currently on such different planes that they can’t even communicate about simple things like touch any more. Claudine bites her lip and turns away. She needs to be away from Maya to think - every touch is pulling her back into the same orbit she was in back in Japan.

They change into shorts and t-shirts, appropriate for the August day. Claudine packs a backpack with two water bottles, and some fruit, along with her cell phone and the house key. Locking the door, they are on their way in less than thirty minutes.

They reach the entrance and turn into a long, winding dirt path flanked by green trees, tall shrubs, and snaking vines. Claudine can hear a creek babbling somewhere to the east, and insects making loud calls, as they always did in the heat of summer. She chews on the inside of her lip a bit, understanding that the woods came with insects, but not being particularly fond of them. They remind her of the rot, of the underpinnings of discontent that had crept under her skin, into their apartment in Japan.

“The path is supposed to wind, about 6 miles,” Claudine says, refocusing. “We bear right first, and eventually it circles back around.”

“Let’s do it.”

It is nice, just walking with Maya. Just being with Maya. Not thinking about work, not comparing herself to Maya in any way, not trying to align their schedules. But she forgets they’re both woefully inexperienced in the woods. She laughs as Maya struggles with some vines that Claudine, in the lead, had passed through with no trouble, but then trips over a root as she turns forward again.

“Are you alright?” Maya asks, resting an arm on her back. And Claudine is hot and cold at once, full of unfulfilled passion from that morning. She curses the way Maya could do this to her with just a casual touch. So many years of proximity of Maya should have dulled this sensation, but it seems to have only been heightened.

“I’m fine,” she says dismissively, and she is. She was only surprised, not injured. Her annoyance grows, however, as the walk goes on, the grade steepens, and Maya begins contemplating the next season of auditions. They’re sweating now, with the effort, and Maya can’t seem to take the hint from her one syllable responses.

“I’m hoping to get a role on the same stage. Did you find my schedule acceptable this season?” Maya asks, a step behind Claudine. She’s like a nagging voice in Claudine’s head, the way Claudine can’t see her but can hear her clearly. The phrases she doesn’t want to think about traveling to her ears like those flies circling around the food she left on the balcony.

“Mm.”

“Or perhaps you can audition there as well, then we will be assured the same schedule.”

They’ve been hiking for nearly an hour and a half now, and Claudine needs to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from making a comment she’ll regret. “Let’s stop for a break,” she says instead.

They sip from the water bottles, snacking on some apricots. Maya stretches her calves out against a tree while Claudine sits on a downed log to rest for a moment. She isn’t sure why - she’s nothing but energy at the moment - suddenly grateful the majority of the hike is still ahead of them.

“What are your plans next season?” Maya asks, and Claudine can hear the tentativeness in her voice as if she knows - as if she’s known all along - that this is a touchy subject.

Claudine flings the pit of the apricot deep into the shrubbery before turning back to Maya. “I don’t know,” she says, hearing the annoyance laced in her tone, powerless to do anything to stop it. “It’s not like I’m guaranteed any role I want. Take what I can get, I suppose.”

Maya stares at her, blinking a few times, as if deciding how she wants to rebut. Maya was never cruel, but she didn’t mince words, either. True to form, she cuts back with, “Are you implying that I get any role I wish for?”

There is a lot to unpack - dozens of directions to take this conversation, and Claudine pauses at the nexus. She wants to love Maya. She wants to lash out at Maya. She wants Maya to comfort her. She wants some semblance of equality between them. She wants Maya to see her point of view. She wants to stop feeling so completely inadequate.

“It’s fine, just forget it. We’ve already had this discussion,” Claudine says, and the final part is true, at least. When she first started seeing an uptick in her audition rejections - at the end of spring season, she had brought it up to Maya, and they had discussed it. The argument - discussion, Maya would say - ended as Maya liked them to, squared away neatly, settled. But it isn’t settled for Claudine, and she has a feeling Maya knows this as well. She’s begun to wonder, recently, if it’s alright - if Claudine disagreeing with Maya can still be sustainable.

Their discussion from months ago is ribbing at her, at them both, like a piece of furniture in their apartment sticking out too much, or something not put away in its proper place. Like a scab she just can’t stop picking at. And now it’s begun to bleed again.

“We can have it again,” Maya suggests.

Claudine stands, not fond of having this discussion from a lower vantage point than Maya. “You told me that the reason I wasn’t getting roles was because there was something I needed to improve in myself. That I was-”

Maya shakes her head, saving Claudine the humiliation of saying it. “I said that whenever I lost a role, my father would tell me to reflect on it, to consider what I was lacking. It was just something to consider. Is that what’s been bothering you all this time?”

Claudine ignores the last part, stepping closer to Maya. “And remember what I said? That I wasn’t lacking at all, the directors just had their favorites picked out from the start.”

Maya pauses for a moment, as if considering her response. “That’s truly how you felt? I thought you just had a lot of frustration that day.”

Claudine sighs, zipping up the pack and taking to the path again, giving Maya no choice but to follow or be left behind. “Of course it’s how I felt,” she mumbles.

Maya doesn’t respond so she continues after they’ve hiked a while longer. “When I was a kid, it was like that a lot. The auditions were a sham. Of course they were there to see if you could follow directions and that your singing wasn’t a disaster, but they often had their top picks ahead of the event. Especially when agents start doing dealings behind the scenes.”

Maya grabs her hand so she’s forced to stop, to take a breath, to meet Maya’s eyes. The connection to Maya is ever-thrilling, and it’s a confusing mixture of trying to communicate properly and pent-up passion. She wants to yank her hand away and bring her lips to Maya’s with equal force, and so she remains locked in Maya’s grasp.

“You really think you were cheated of some roles?” Maya asks, deadly serious. The warmth, the passion, drains at once.

“I don’t know,” she admits. “I don’t have any proof. I-” Her voice cuts out as she can feel the emotion building, and she wills herself not to cry. “It feels like that, but maybe I just want that to be the answer, because otherwise…”

“Otherwise?”

“Otherwise it means I’m just completely inadequate!”

She pulls her hand from Maya’s and turns to walk further down the path, moving rapidly this time, feeling the lump in her throat and the tears burn her eyes. If she wasn’t cheated out of the role, if the auditions weren’t rigged from the start, then it just meant she was losing part after part after part, falling further and further behind Maya, who was climbing higher and higher towards her dreams. She wonders who she is without the stage, who she is if she’s not side by side with Maya in their shared pursuit of stardom. Those two principles have defined her for so many years, that without them… she wonders who Saijou Claudine is?

Of course that was why she is pulling away, she realizes. Of course that is why she wanted to quietly escape the country for a bit. She loves Maya, she doesn’t want to hurt her, but she doesn’t know how to bring up this conversation with someone who is becoming everything she cannot be. Hers is a fading star while Maya is only beginning to show her full radiance.

“Hey, Claudine-”

She ignores the call, walking faster.

“Clau-”

She trips over a rock, trips for the second time that day, this time tumbling to the left, and falling off the sharp bank of a creek she hadn’t even realized they were walking beside. Her elbow catches on a rock, or a root, slowing her fall some, and she continues down the bank until she’s landed in the water. She sits up, and the water is moving rapidly, but it is shallow. She was on the verge of tears earlier, and it is taking everything she has to hold them back now. She wonders if Maya is back on the path, holding back a laugh, but doesn’t dare look up. Her elbow stings, but the water rushing past is cooling it off, at least.

“Claudine! Are you alright?” Maya asks, easing her way down the embankment. Claudine realizes Maya was probably trying to warn her a moment before she tripped, and she blushes, standing and turning away from Maya to hide her embarrassment.

She sniffs, keeping her head turned away until she can blink back her tears. Frustration, embarrassment, pain, she’s not even sure what she’s crying for. “I’m alright, but my phone might be toast,” she says, pulling it from the side pocket of her backpack to see a screen flashing between white and black. “Gonna have to let that dry out a bit…” She wades out of the water, her feet, shorts, and bottom of her shirt soaked, and climbs up the few feet back to the path with Maya. Maya reaches immediately for her elbow, looking over the scrape and without warning, pulls off her shirt, using the bottom to wipe away blood and then apply pressure.

Claudine blushes. It’s awkward to be this close to Maya after being so emotional moments before. She feels bad for snapping at Maya. For getting so heated she got them into this situation. “Listen, Maya, I-”

Maya shakes her head. “You don’t have to apologize. I am glad we’re talking. But we should get back and get this treated properly,” she said, gesturing to Claudine’s arm.

Claudine nods, her eyes meeting Maya’s with the incredibly close proximity. This is dangerous, she realizes.

Maya traces her fingers along Claudine’s jaw, her gaze soft and hungry all at once. And then she is gone, and Claudine is left to hold the t-shirt against her own arm. She puts the backpack down for a moment as she moves to wring out her shirt. She steps away from Maya, hoping the bleeding on her arm has staunched for the moment, only then realizing Maya is now standing before her in just running shorts and a sports bra.

“What are you doing? You’re going to get sunburned!” she protests, mostly for her own sake. She is trying to sort out her own feelings, a confusing blend of issues that is as much about her relationship with Maya and how they communicate as it is about the identity of Saijou Claudine, and Maya’s abs certainly aren’t helping her focus.

“I’ll be fine, it’s mostly shady on the path, and I’m pretty warm anyways,” Maya says.

Claudine takes another sip from her water, and passes it to Maya as well. She figures Maya’s figure, stimulating or not, will be unimportant if Claudine is the one leading them down the path. “Let’s go back, there’s no reason to try to finish the circuit.”

Maya nods in agreement. Claudine walks back to the path, a tiny bit worried about finding their way out now that her phone (and the map she’d downloaded onto it) were toast, but she tries to exude confidence. It was what got her through Seisho, just a step behind Maya, and it was one of the major factors she attributed to her star rising as high as it had, though of course it had descended some since its peak. Confidence was a pillar of Saijou Claudine, just as poise and being a quick study were. But weren’t those also core attributes of Tendo Maya?

So she bites her lip, trying to remember the map from her memory. The road should be to the southwest. If they continue to the north or east, we would be in the woods for a long time.

“Ok, so we walk back the way we came. That’s not so hard. And… moss grows on the… north side… right?” Suddenly everything doesn’t seem as clear, and her fear is growing. She tries to keep her breathing calm and even. She concentrates not on the path, but on her dilemma. Maya doesn’t speak her mind as often, she thinks. Maya keeps her thoughts inside. Maya doesn’t express herself with as much emotion. There are things that only Saijou Claudine can do, she thinks.

“Well, I definitely fell to my left, which means we should start heading back this way,” Claudine says, pointing back the opposite direction. Her confidence is building just from the steadiness in her voice.

Maya nods, and they begin walking back. But it isn’t long before they approach a place where the path forks that they hadn’t noticed when they had been walking before, no doubt because they were in a heated discussion. Maya adjusts her shoe as they pause at the fork, and Claudine doesn’t miss the little wince of pain, trained as she is to detect any change in Maya’s condition.

“What is it?” she asks.

“Nothing. I just didn’t anticipate a hike, so I didn’t pack the correct shoes,” Maya says.

Claudine can see it, as Maya pulls down her sock: the skin rubbed raw on the back of her heel. She sighs, knowing she’s the one who planned this, she’s the one who dragged them onto this disaster of a hike. She nearly smiles to herself, bitterly. So now Maya has one too, she thinks. Evidence that this wound of our relationship has broken open.

They choose the wider path and continue on. “Let’s get home quickly to treat those blisters,” Claudine says, gesturing to Maya’s heels.

It takes another hour and a half to get out of the woods, and longer still to get to the chalet. They arrive bruised and battered, with a broken phone, blistered feet, wet clothes, bug bites, and despite Maya’s earlier assurances, a sunburn.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Maya insists Claudine shower first since she was wearing the wet clothes the whole time, and she doesn’t protest much.

Perhaps due to her exhaustion, her frustration comes out as a laugh in the shower as she thinks about how her hike, meant to get her mind right, somehow served its function and was a complete disaster at the same time. The hot water hits the scrape on her elbow, the pain reminding her of her awkward fall into the stream. They were Stage Girls, they were rather naive to think they could just try roughing it for a day, she supposes. It helped, in a way, to start the conversation about what was bothering her, but it is unfinished, and it hangs between them now, unpleasantly. She knows they need to continue to talk soon, but she isn’t sure she is ready.

She gets out of the shower and bandages her arm, taking her time drying her hair. Maya showers next, and Claudine slips into the bedroom she’s been using, eager for a few more moments to regroup before facing Maya again. She sits in her bathrobe on the bedroom floor, leaning against the bed, unsure why she doesn’t just get on it. She supposes she’s afraid she might not get out, just sleeping the night away without actually talking to Maya.

She hugs her knees to her chest, letting her mind go blank for just a few minutes, relaxing like she did for a couple days when she was here alone. She hears the shower stop, the hair dryer run and then stop, and her anxiety begins to build again. But she knows what she needs to do. She loves Maya, she wants to fix things between them. She just… doesn’t want to be relegated to a moon orbiting the sun of Tendo Maya.

She hears the floorboards creak, pausing outside of her room, and then continue on down the stairs. She knows she can’t delay much longer, the sky is almost completely dark now. She puts on pajama pants and a white tank, something light for the August weather.

Claudine takes the time to prepare them a simple meal with whatever food is remaining in the kitchen. They would really need to do the shopping tomorrow, she realizes. Maya is already in the kitchen, wearing a shirt similar to hers, but in black, the bit of sunburn apparent on her shoulders. Claudine doesn’t mention it. “Here, eat,” she says.

“Thank you. The stars are really beautiful out here,” Maya comments. It’s dark now. They’ve spent the day on the hike and the evening recovering, that even with the long days of August, they’ve burned all the daylight. “You can’t see skies like this in Tokyo.”

“I guess,” Claudine says. She’s never been one to contemplate the stars. But Maya had mentioned a constellation earlier, perhaps she had a secret interest. Claudine decides to indulge her, perhaps as a penance for that hike. “Do you want to look at them?”

Maya nods, a little shyly. “If you’re up to it.”

Claudine takes a bite of the rather underwhelming dinner she made, considering. “I don’t want to leave the house again, but we can look from the backyard. There’s not a lot of tree cover, it should be fine. If you’re fine with that?”

“I’d like that a lot.”

And so after they clean up dinner, they go out to the yard, laying back in the grass and looking up at the sky. Maya is right, as Maya usually is. The stars are bright. Maya tells her about constellations: Leo - their birth sign, and Cygnus, the swan. She had no idea Maya had such knowledge, even after all this time.

She can’t explain why a tear escapes her when Maya points out Castor and Pollox, the twin stars. One is shining slightly brighter, but Maya doesn’t make mention of this.

Claudine wipes the tear away, knowing it’s time to talk to Maya properly. It’s quiet, they’re alone. They’re not lost in the woods any longer. “It’s not about the auditions, not really,” she says.

“I know,” Maya says.

“That’s why you came, instead of waiting for me to come back to Japan, right?”

“I… I came because I was afraid.”

Claudine looks at Maya, turning her head against the lush grass. Maya is beautiful, framed by fireflies, but now she looks deadly serious, scared even. “Afraid?” Claudine asks.

Maya nods. “You have been distant in the past few months. We’ve been on different schedules. Then you suddenly leave. I thought… maybe you wanted to get away… from me.”

Claudine would have laughed had Maya not been on the verge of tears. “You thought I was getting away from you, so your reaction was to come after me?” she asks. She tucks a lock of Maya’s hair behind her ear. “...Though I suppose you’re not entirely wrong.”

Seeing the fear in Maya’s eyes, she quickly moves to reassure her. “It’s not what you think… I love you. God, I love you. I just… I left because when I’m beside you… I sometimes feel like I am swallowed up. Like there is no more Saijou Claudine.”

Maya looks at her now, but Claudine lays back, gazing at the stars and at the deep black emptiness that falls between them. “When I’m with you I just feel like I’m part of ‘Maya and Claudine’ or that I’m constantly chasing after Tendo Maya. So much so that I think I forgot who Saijou Claudine was on her own. I got those audition rejections and without the stage, without work I-”

“Without work you’re still you,” Maya says, as a firefly glides across Claudine’s vision.

Claudine nods, trying to convince herself. “I’ve also just been frustrated with us. With the way we talk about things, or don’t about things. With the way I can feel this divide between us that it seems like I can’t cross.”

“You think I don’t feel like that too, sometimes?” Maya asks, not accusational, but merely conversationally. “That I don’t also have fears and doubts about our relationship?” She pauses, each word intentional, and says “I do. But I swallow them down because I want our relationship to be beautiful and perfect. Untainted.”

Claudine understands. It’s the pressure of being the best. Never letting anyone see you sweat. But within their relationship, she knows it can’t work like that. She picks at the bandage on her arm, the scab underneath aching in a comforting way with her prodding. “You swallow it down, and I just leave the country.”

“Obviously we’re coping really well,” Maya says, in a rare bout of sarcasm.

Claudine pauses, gazing up at the stars, aware of the way Maya is looking at her with almost too much love. “I want something authentic,” she says after a moment. “Something genuine. I want you to be Maya, and me to be Claudine. I want us to be together. And I want us to be ourselves.”

Surprisingly, Maya doesn’t settle back, but rather keeps her gaze on Claudine, propped up as she is on her side, head resting on one arm. “I would like that.”

The furrow she didn’t realize she was holding in her brows relaxes a bit with Maya’s words, and she exhales, suddenly exhausted. “My authentic self doesn’t like keeping the apartment pristine,” she teases.

“Well my authentic self might have a penchant for baking.” Maya matches her in stride.

“I don’t think that’s how it works, but if you want to try baking, go for it,” she laughs. And it feels good: to laugh with Maya. They have the same friends, they have the same career, they even share the same bedroom, but Saijou Claudine is not Tendo Maya. She loses some roles Maya gets. Perhaps, in the future, she’ll get some that Maya loses.

Finally, Maya relaxes beside her, staring up at the stars. “You know, the stars change based on the seasons,” she says.

“Of course. I might be an actress, but even I have the basics of a well-rounded education.”

She isn’t looking at Maya, but she can sense her smile, the look of ‘I know, I wasn’t trying to tease you, I was making a point’. “Go on,” she urges Maya.

“Stars that aren’t bright in the summer might be shining brightly in the winter, or new ones might appear that weren’t there before. I just… about your roles lately…” she pauses, as if waiting for Claudine’s harsh rebuke for breaching such a sensitive subject. But Claudine is too tired and too in love with Maya to snap right now, so she just sits with the lump in her throat and allows Maya to continue. “You are still shining as brightly as ever to me, Claudine. I think it just will take another season for someone else to recognize it. Please do not doubt yourself as much.”

It’s impossible to reply to that, with Maya’s gaze looking down at her so lovingly. So instead she just does what she’s been denying herself all day, reaching up to Maya’s neck to pull her down until their lips meet, kissing beneath Maya’s beloved stars. And it feels good. She wants to pour her love into Maya. She wants to reintroduce herself to Maya. She wants to meet this new Maya that knows about astronomy and baking and follows her across the world, she wants to know more and more. She is hungry for Maya and she can taste Maya’s hunger for her.

She laces her fingers through Maya’s hair, and in turn, Maya’s hand is against her cheek, her thumb stroking against her neck. Her tongue meets Maya’s, and she is enshrouded in a curtain of Maya’s perfect hair. The chorus of insects and gentle lapping of the pond are the only things reminding her that she is not in a void consisting only of Maya.

Somehow they make it back inside. Somehow they make it to the bed. And Claudine is reminded why Maya is her completion and her undoing, a truly greedy woman who she can’t help but adore. In the moments after, laying naked in bed in France, with Maya’s head on her chest, she feels it - herself. No one else in the world would be here in this moment, she feels assured.

“I want to do better,” she says quietly, as she draws lazy patterns on Maya’s back. “At my work. With us. Just… better.” She wants to feel this feeling all the time.

She feels Maya’s head nuzzle closer against her, and she can tell Maya is nearly asleep. “Let’s do better,” she says, her voice low with sleep. “I… don’t want you to run away from me ever again.”

She moves to stroking Maya’s hair, assuring her of her presence. “I won’t. I’m right here.”

_________________________________________________________________________________

“Are you coming, Claudine?”

Claudine rolls her eyes as she follows behind Maya, her eyes catching sight of the hiking boots on Maya’s feet that she had taken the time to break in by walking around their neighborhood. There would be no blisters today. She adjusts the pack on her shoulders: packed with water, snacks, and her phone in a water-proof case, and follows Maya along the path.

“Of course, I’m right behind you,” she answers, purposely using a nagging voice. Truly though, she checks the path, careful to avoid any uneven terrain. She is cautious with her steps - she does not plan to trip or fall today.

They walk through the trails, this time the foliage was more familiar. This park was just outside of the prefecture, and the parks of Japan, while definitely not well-known to them, seemed more their speed. She follows Maya up several hilly paths, until they stop in a clearing, about an hour and a half after starting, setting on a large boulder to take a break.

“It’s a lot different than the first time we tried this,” Maya jokes, and Claudine has to agree.

It’s only been three months since France, but everything is different. They’re more prepared to hike - they’re well equipped, they’ve done their research, they’ve prepared. They’re in a better place with each other, too. Talking, smiling, being a couple but also just being themselves, together.

She is no longer on an opposite schedule as Maya. She is no longer avoiding Maya’s touch. Rather, she is greedy for it, basking in Maya’s love and in turn giving it back, an old hunger reawakened since France. She leans forward to kiss Maya as they pass the water bottle between them, laughing a bit at Maya’s wet lips. It’s easier now. Not everything - there’s still auditions they get rejected from, schedules that don’t always line up. She and Maya don’t always agree on everything, but it’s alright to not agree, she realizes.
Her hand passes over her other arm’s elbow, where a healed scar, nearly undetectable from the surrounding skin, stands out under her touch. It was earned months ago in France, but she hopes it will be the last reminder of that time.

“Here, try one,” Maya says, reaching into her bag. She pulls out a box and opens it, revealing two muffins. They’re a little lumpy, definitely the work of an amateur, but Claudine is hungry and she can’t deny they look delicious.

“When did you have time to make these?” she asks, taking one from the box.

“While you were at rehearsals,” Maya replies. “I admit they may not be the best, as I’m only beginning to learn, but…”

Claudine bites in quickly, and the muffin, as she predicted, is good. Appearances aside, it is very tasty, as she would expect from Maya. “It’s delicious,” she assures her, with her mouth still full.

She leans against Maya as she finishes the snack, reveling in the feeling of the sunlight on her skin, the touch of her girlfriend against her skin, the taste of the muffin in her mouth, and the feeling of being fulfilled with proper work after so long. In another month, she would be debuting as one of the leads in a major production, almost as if Maya had made a wish on a star that night.

She was her own person; she was Maya’s other half. They made compromises. They stood their own ground. They were similar and opposing forces that argued and forgave, created ripples and navigated them, pushed and pulled and pulled more, back to each other inevitably.

“Let’s get back on the path,” Maya suggests, and Claudine could see her energy rippling, could see her ready to do this right.

“Yes, let’s.”